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Marigolds and Festal Culture

All Soul's Day procession, Tucson AZ, 2008

All Soul’s Day procession, Tucson AZ

Have you heard people mention how the ‘veil is thin’ this time of year? Ever wondered exactly what they mean by this? You’re likely not alone. This is a time of liminality throughout many cultures and belief systems, wherein the veil between the seasons of autumn and winter or between the worlds of the living and dead are very transparent.

We have our well known and candy-obsessed Halloween, when kids trick-or-treat and grown-ups go to costume parties. All this spookiness comes from ancient traditions like Samhaim and All Soul’s Day. Our neighbors in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead with gusto and mucho marigolds. And this is just the beginning! The end of October and Early November bring us a vast collection of world holidays and celebrations rarely known by folks in our western culture.  It seems our collective death-distancing mentality in the U.S. also distances us from a whole range of opportunities for celebrating, acknowledging and honoring our dead.

Here is one gigantic exception: The All Souls Procession in Tucson, Arizona. This is a one-of-a-kind, community based, collective festal experience founded by Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson. She began the Procession 23 years ago with a small handful of friends, to honor her Father. Today it has become a collective experience to observe one painful thread we all have in common: loss. This definition helps describe its origins and intentions:

“Festal Culture”  is the expression and fulfillment of core human needs through public celebration, ceremony, and ritual. The All Souls Procession is an event that was created to serve the public need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

I’ve been fortunate to live in Tucson for the past eight years and participate in the procession every year. It is always held the weekend after Halloween, to keep it authentically true and not become a big drunken costume fest. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything remotely like it. It is a collective opening, or leaning into, the experience of loss and humility we all share because one day, we will die. Some people come with a reverence and tenderness for a person, an animal or a concept they grieve. People also come to celebrate loved ones long after making the transition from life into death. And always, some people come just to stand in awe of the mystery. I am an Urn Ambassador, acting as a voice of the Urn. Ambassadors help people throughout the procession realize the significance of the Urn and how they may actively put something into it for release to the elements of fire and air.

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession)

The Urn Burns (All Souls Procession) (Photo credit: cobalt123)

This ‘Prayer Form’ offers a remote way to download, write expressions and send these in electronically for placement into the urn. During the procession, I’ve witnessed people of all ages and beliefs drawing pictures, writing notes, offering photos and tearfully offering cremains or symbolic objects like dog collars and so on, to be placed with reverence into the Urn and burned during the Procession’s Finale.

Trying to explain this event to someone who hasn’t attended is nearly impossible. This is why as a Life-Cycle Celebrant© and avid believer in the power of healing through collective experiences during ritual and ceremony, I tirelessly call attention toward it! What is possible to sense, whether consciously or subconsciously during the Procession, is the feeling of liminal space I mentioned earlier. Being between worlds. Being vulnerable and open to complete mystery. This space is powerful beyond words. Here’s a peek into it from last year:

And here is a new peek from this year’s event:

All Souls Procession 2012 – teaser from Willow Tale Pictures on Vimeo.

When does a family-led funeral make sense?

The simplest answer to this question is twofold: 1) when a death occurs at home; and 2) when care and vigil for a loved one after death feels natural to the circle of caregivers present.

While sitting with an extended family in their home yesterday, we discussed questions or concerns about holding vigil for a family member who may make her final transition at home. They are preparing for this possibility with painstaking care, profound love, and gracefully awake open-heartedness.  Their collective relief after our conversation made a lasting imprint upon me. They voiced how natural our conversation felt, despite not sensing the greatest fluency in the matter at hand. They acknowledged feeling more at ease with the moments, days, weeks or months ahead. The ‘left-brain’ information I offered in a time of heart-centered transformation and transition seemed like a kind of rare sustenance for their journey.

Family Conversation

If you live in a state where caring for our own is legal, having an open discussion about alternatives and factual choices for family-led care may bring more relief than you imagine possible. (Here is the most current place you can access state by state information.) Might this kind of discussion feel challenging and emotional? Yes. Can there be humor and tears woven throughout? Absolutely! Whether you are holding the conversation for clarifying your own wishes or planning for a close family member, the work it takes to hold the discussion will result in emotional, mental, perhaps spiritual or physical and sometimes even financial relief. (All this said, many variables surely exist. Depending upon location, nature of death or other factors, family-led care or home vigil is not for everyone.)

These thoughts from Nancy Jewel Poer, an author and maven of family-led care, expands on the simplistic answers I’ve offered above:

“To care for a death at home requires a group of people willing to help when needed and at least a few with full awareness of what needs to be done. This extensive ritual may not be possible or appropriate in many cases. What is practical, good and right for any person and their family is what needs to be done. But regardless of circumstances, of religious views, traditions, cultural mores or cultural cynicism, this is a deeply important time for all involved. Contemplation and support of the spiritual destiny and legacy of the dying one, and compassionate support of the survivors, always, always brings goodness into the universal scheme of life.” (Excerpt from her book “Living into Dying: A Journal of Spiritual and Practical Deathcare for Family and Community.”)

Soon, I’ll be posting dialogue from a family I assisted, while they cared for their own mother at home, after her final transition. What they share will shed further light onto answering this question of when a family-led funeral makes sense. If you have any individual questions or would like a community presentation, please feel free to contact me either by phone or email, or the contact form on this blog.

Mourning a Pet’s Departure

We have a great blessing of living with and loving animal companions. They often live in our homes, if not right outside. They even sleep on our beds with us at night. I wake up sometimes, with my kitty purring right up against my neck, as if to say “everything is perfect: right here, right now.” And she comforts me beyond whatever meaning those words hold. Simple assurance. What a gift!

dog

Happy dog! (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

So, for many of us, animals feel like family members. Or even closer than family members. When I work with people leading up to an animal’s death or just afterward, I hear them express real physical and emotional pain about losing such a strong connection and physical presence. It is a bond that is not easily described or conveyed. I support people ( in person locally, or by phone or Skype from long distances) with rituals to help ease loss. These are highly sensitive and confidential situations; understandably so.

A couple of recent blog posts have given me new insight into why mourning a pet’s departure is so tough. I’m including an excerpt from this one in the Washington Post, because it so tangibly illustrates the pattern I see (with dogs, horses or cats):

Researchers have long known that the animal-human bond is strong: A 1988 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling asked a group of dog owners to place symbols for their family members and pets in a circle representing each dog owner’s life. (The distance between the subject and the other symbols corresponds to the relative, real-life closeness of those relationships.) The subjects tended to put the dog closer than the average family member, and about as close as the closest family member; in 38 percent of the cases, the dog was closest of all.

And this post, about a beautiful therapy dog named Lily, moved me to tears. Dr. Tornambe’s words caused me to reflect upon the loss of my own three greyhounds. Each who died so differently: suddenly, painfully and of plain old age. He wrote about Lily’s death, “I can’t begin to describe the sorrow and grief that I am feeling right now.” And oh, how I do relate. He offers some psychologists’s recommendations for pet loss, among which is: “Rituals help healing. Have a memorial service or funeral to honor your pet and allow you to work toward closure.” And as a Life-Cycle Celebrant who believes wholeheartedly in the power of ritual, I agree. Yet I’d change the last part of the sentence from ‘work toward closure’ to ‘find the openings’. Because this act honors their essence: it is what animals help us do. They help us see openings into what is possible within ourselves and the world.

Here are a few points I can add to both of these articles about mourning a pet’s death, both from my own personal experience and witnessing others:

  • Be congruent. Through your thoughts, feelings, speech and actions. Speak your heart and your thoughts to your animal companion with honesty. Then act upon those, however you see it can be healing. Either while leading up to euthanasia or after a sudden death, speak aloud whatever is in your heart. This is a kind of ritual in of itself, having to do with profound release.
  • Offer gratitude. Whether grieving a horse who has carried you on countless trail rides, or a dog who has been a colossal couch potato — be present to express thankfulness to this being.
  • Bless yourself and your companion. I believe we all have the power to bless. We can do this with simple oil to the forehead, nose or paws for a furry one and then the same oil to our own forehead, chest or pulse points. During grief and mourning, something this simple can be very soothing and focus thoughts during tough emotions, if even for a brief time.
  • Find symbols. These are tangible objects to remind you of your companion and the spirit of your relationship carried forward after death. Keep these nearer during the hardest working stages of grief and then gradually let the symbols rest or even let them go, as you find the physical pain of separation lessens.

It is such a great privilege to live with and learn from animals, isn’t it? I’d offer how this privilege and ALL of the attendant joys outweigh the sorrows. As always though, in time.

Consumer Advocacy in Life & Death

Three words: honesty + basic transparency. What do these describe? The mission motivating Josh Slocum, the Funeral Consumers Alliance national Executive Director. The FCA’s biennial meeting happened in Tucson this month. While attending a full day of the conference sessions, I heard Josh give two talks: ‘State of the FCA’ and ‘Going Green without Going Broke’. He has a dry wit that kills me (sorry), and he is wickedly intelligent. I am so grateful he strongly advocates for funeral consumers (both living and dead) across the country!

Since the late-70s, 60 Minutes' opening featur...

The state of the FCA is healthy and Josh happily reported the latest BIG news: his May 2012 interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. The segment addresses the question: “Should you buy a plot ahead of time?” To which Josh consistently responds, “No.” If you want to learn more about his response and what kind of laws affect you locally, I recommend getting this book: “Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.”Co-written by Josh and Lisa Carlson, it is an invaluable resource.

A new piece of Josh’s message resonated with me big time: bringing the FCA message about funeral rights to a younger crowd. By younger, I interpreted him to mean the two to four decades old crowd, rather than six to eight. I’m chewing on this idea and how I might be able to help my Southern Arizona FCA chapter achieve outreach to a younger set. He reminded us how the FCA founders were in their 30’s and 40’s with a purpose rooted in social and economic justice.

In the “going green” department, Josh says the best means is “maintaining the right to choose NOT to be a consumer.” So basic and honest, right? And so true. As funeral consumers, in nearly all states (41 to be exact) we can still be our own funeral directors. We can legally and naturally care for our own. Even in the states where a funeral director is required for some piece of the death care process, people can choose to be minimalist consumers with a lighter environmental footprint.

A Blessing for Parents

None of us want to face death – either of others or our own. The toughest kind of death may be of children though, especially when within our own family. I’m posting this blessing in honor of a family who lost their unborn baby this week. It is an experience I wish no mother or father, sister or brother would ever have to face. Words feel flimsy in these situations, yet may at some point during grieving, offer some kind of soothing relief.

For a Parent on the Death of a Child

Family of Great Crested Grebes. Two adults and...

No one knows the wonder

Your child awoke in you,

Your heart a perfect cradle

To hold its presence.

Inside and outside became one

As new waves of love

Kept surprising your soul.

 

Now you sit bereft

Inside a nightmare,

Your eyes numbed

By the sight of a grave

No parent should ever see.

 

You will wear this absence

Like a secret locket,

Always wondering why

Such a new soul

Was taken home to soon.

 

Let the silent tears flow

And when your eyes clear

Perhaps you will glimpse

How your eternal child

Has become the unseen angel

Who parents your heart

And persuades the moon

to send new gifts ashore.

 

Written by John O’Donohue and published in his gorgeous gift of a book: “To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings”

 

Knowing Death | Valuing Life

Lately I’ve shared a string of delicately expansive interactions with clients and friends. I’m continuously awed by the ways people open themselves into vulnerable space in my presence, as we co-create and enact ceremonies for their lives. It is likely because the people I serve live with great authenticity. Maybe it is also due in part to how I listen or observe like few have before. Whatever the causes, I am grateful for these openings.

My clients know themselves and their relations with a steadiness. They know they want meaningful ceremonies to acknowledge their life milestones. They want to share the experience with a close circle of people they love. Somehow together, we summon quite a lot of courage. We lean into the vulnerable places and with this leaning, we open channels of grace. Curiously enough, this happens during weddings as well as during end of life or death rites. (Yes, I lead ceremonies for the whole spectrum of life milestones!)

A continuous thread I’ve noticed during these recent interactions is this: awareness of death. Not a macabre or frightened kind of awareness. Rather, a genteel acknowledgment. A familiarity. Whether a Father or Mother has passed, a Grandfather or a sister, the death imparts a familiarity with the fragile nature of life. Kind of like knowing a certain tree that grows natively in your landscape. It is always present. It lives through different seasons; sometimes looking pleasant and other times looking bleak. No matter the tree’s state of being, it reminds you of the cycles in life. These cycles present the impermanence of life, right alongside the beauty.

Malus domestica: Flowering tree. Deutsch: Apfe...

Next to this thread of awareness, I’ve noticed a sister-thread.  These dynamic and authentic people all live and interact with a really humble love. I sense their gratitude. It is palpable. I see emotions well up in their whole bodies, as if to say, “this moment is why I am alive!” I witness how they absolutely adore each other. They are most certainly not bumbling through life on auto-pilot. They are here to fully absorb the big-juicy-joyful parts of life, yet not blithely. They don’t fear giving a nod – often in the form of remembrance – to the messiness lying directly counterpoint.

The people of whom I speak truly and consciously value life.

All this to say, I felt surprised to find two articles today, on this very topic. The research presented underscores my observations of a relatively positive pattern. In a death distancing culture, it is rare to see the topic presented in a positive light. Yet both of these articles do just this! This post speaks to how thinking about mortality may bring us to a place of discerning more of what we value in life. Beyond entertaining those values, this post points to research suggesting how death awareness may even improve our physical health.

Yes. This is fragile territory. And yet, there is nowhere else I would rather be companioning the people I serve.

Tips for a Moving Eulogy

While I love writing and leading custom remembrance ceremonies for people or their animal companions in Tucson, I enjoy assisting others in the art of doing so as well. I offer consulting for families who may be planning a memorial or celebration of life anywhere, by assisting them with creating their own meaningful ceremony script to deliver themselves. I am also an instructor for the Celebrant Foundation and Institute, currently leading a course in Funeral Celebrancy and Ceremonies for Healing. Recent sections we explored in class and subsequent conversations with students, combined with this article I just read, compelled me to pen this post.

You might agree it is a fortunate occasion to hear a thoughtful, well-crafted and meaningful eulogy. (I’m guessing you might also agree it is a rare occasion?) Rather than delve into why I think this may be so, I’ve got some tips on how to make it so! Eulogizing a life can feel daunting. So, reverting to a chronological-style obit presentation of a life often becomes the default approach. Here are a few ideas on how to depart from this mode:

  • Ask yourself, “What did it mean for  _______ to live?” This gets to the heart of why we write and share eulogies: reflecting on the legacy this person leaves us to reconcile. We pause. We learn from their example: their opportunities, relationships or even sometimes, their struggles.
  • What stories bring his or her essence into the room? Storytelling may be the most powerful tool we have for conveying a legacy. Vignettes from a life, in full color and sensory description, bring the essence of a person right into the room. When a eulogy is moving and truly stirs emotions, we feel closer to the honoree. We can feel his or her presence through our senses and our memories.
  • Be daring with your narrative. Weave in actual quotes from the deceased and the people who were caregivers or were close throughout life. The article I cited earlier, including a eulogy excerpt from the author about his mother, offers masterful examples of bright dialogue, like this:

Easily bored, my mother wanted mothering to be edifying.  If it was merely tedious, she didn’t have the patience for it. Instead of plying me with food like the stereotypical Jewish mother, by my teenage years she declared that she was so sick and tired of answering my incessant questions about what food was on hand that food was thereafter off limits as a topic of conversation between us. From then on, she proclaimed, she and I would speak only of literary matters.
               
“So,” I would say, sauntering into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door, “do you think Camus liked bologna?  Think Sartre would have enjoyed it if there’d been any mustard to go with it?”
               
She would cackle and call me a horse’s ass.  And in my dubiously affectionate fashion, I had a name for her, too. I called her “The Duchess.”   For she was also the most refined person I knew, sensitive to language and music and art, attuned to every nuance of expression and gesture.

  • Don’t shy away from the tough stuff. Lightly touch upon what may have been challenging about the honoree’s character. If the eulogy sanctifies a person we know did not live as a saint (and who does?), it is distracting and falls flat upon the listeners’ ears. Again, this passage from ‘A Thousand Shades of Life’ illuminates my point:

But her mothering was spotty, full of static-y offs and ons, like a wire in a loose connection — sometimes yes, more often no.  My other name for her was “Motherly” — because she wasn’t, with me, anyway.  We had a shortage of tender moments between us; they were usually more operatic — high hilarity, or threats and recriminations. But there was one moment that was so gentle that even years later it shines with a dull glow.

Compelling, yes? You really want to keep reading/listening. And something about this naked honesty might even resonate with you, too.

I certainly don’t wish the task of writing a eulogy upon anyone, anytime soon. If you are in a context where you need to however, my hope is you find these tips helpful. And at the very least, you feel inspired by the fantastic writing I’ve shared.

Can simple = meaningful?

Yes. Most definitely, in fact! Observing simplicity while remembering a life may even foster more meaning and participation.  And these happen to be two qualities I wholeheartedly encourage families to adopt during remembrance.

When people openly speak their own final wishes to me (and what a relief when they do!), I often hear this refrain: “I just want my funeral to be a celebration. Nothing big, just simple.” And likewise, families may be following either verbal or written directions for a ‘simple’ memorial. I help guide them toward supportive and unique ceremonial elements to meet this request.

Spring flowers

Whether a funeral (body present), memorial (ashes present) or Celebration of Life (party with or without remains) is the ‘final wish’ you or your kin make known,  the level of simplicity sought is a personal decision. Someone may even want a living celebration before they transition. Honoring a life legacy while the honoree is still living can be a poignantly wonderful experience.

Amidst these choices, please remember this: simplicity need not mean no ceremony at all. Because truly, any remembrance ceremony is held in support of those grieving. It is a supportive community effort. Ceremony gives us a chance to help carry what may be too big to carry alone: acknowledging loss. And doing so in relevant, personal ways provide deeply meaningful places to begin healing.

This article — highlighting the Celebrant Foundation & Institute where I trained and now instruct — explains an array of possibilities for personal celebrations of a life well lived. Yes, for mourners of a Tarzan enthusiast, it may prove a very cathartic ceremonial element for everyone to howl like Tarzan during a memorial! Or if you loved Big Band music with a passion, why not specify an actual Big swing Band to play at your Celebration of Life?

The more we enter this kind of free and creative final wishes dialogue before a death occurs, the more we may be able to face death humbly, as a natural part of life. Challenging? Maybe. Yet it can be a very healthy and liberating conversation to hold. And the more transparency about the choices, the healthier! A great tool to help families accomplish this sometimes elusive, yet always necessary conversation: Five Wishes. This document can really help serve as a catalyst. There is even a section about funeral or memorial wishes. Properly signed, it meets the legal requirements for advance directives in these states.

Sending light with song at Memorials

More likely than not, you have experienced the power of song during a Celebration of Life or Memorial, yes? Maybe you felt goosebumps wash over you. Or maybe the song was so cathartic, it opened up whatever held back your unshed tears.

I am fresh from a retreat where I sang for nearly three days – during a Southwest Gathering of Threshold Choirs – led by our founder Kate Munger. I attended with two other sisters from Tucson, joining a circle of women from Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Silver City, Austin and more. Together, we felt first hand the power of healing songs; written to celebrate life, acknowledge love, provide support and soothe the pangs of loss. I am feeling enormously blessed for being a member of the Tucson Threshold Choir. Thus, needed to share here what a resource we are locally, regionally and nationally.

Here is an ‘introductory’ video, featuring the ‘Grandmother’ of our Choir movement, Kate:

 

Here are a few song lyrics to go with what you hear in this video:

“I am sending you light / To heal you / To hold you / I am sending you light / To hold you in love”

This is an example of a song we recently sang, at a bi-annual Celebration of Life for a Tucson Hospice. We sing to people in various settings, not only at bedside. The songs are simple and beautiful. Our Choirs’ sounds reach out to help people remember and heal with love.

Please feel free to write with any questions or comments about the Threshold Choir movement and the music we create!

Kindness and Sorrow

This piece of poetry gives me a very gentle pause. Every single time I read it.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Thank you, Joyce Kornblatt, for inspiring this post.